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5 - The Politics of Labor Policy Reform

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 November 2014

Dorian T. Warren
Affiliation:
Columbia University
Jeffery A. Jenkins
Affiliation:
University of Virginia
Sidney M. Milkis
Affiliation:
University of Virginia
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Summary

Introduction

For more than sixty years, since Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 over President Truman’s veto, organized labor has sought major labor law reform to shift the industrial playing field on which unions and employers play. In five attempts over six decades, the American labor movement has failed every time to achieve reform of national labor policy, including most recently in the first two years of the Obama Administration. In addition to failing to win new legislative enactments, organized labor has also failed to prevent policy drift in labor law to respond to significant changes in the American economy and increasingly hostile employer behavior toward unions over the last half of the twentieth century. Indeed, in recent years there have been strong attacks on staple union rights such as collective bargaining, most notably in Michigan – the home of the once-powerful United Auto Workers – which became the twenty-fourth state to enacted a “right to work” law in March 2013.

This failure of the American labor movement over six decades – at moments of both organizational strength and weakness – to enact its most important legislative priority and respond to shifting environmental conditions raises a puzzle. Why and how has organized labor, the largest and strongest mass-membership interest group in American politics, failed repeatedly over sixty years to win labor policy reform through the political system? And how is it that the Democratic Party has failed to deliver reform for its core constituency of the twentieth century, especially at moments of party control over Congress and the White House? These two questions are even more puzzling considering the unique position of the labor movement within the Democratic Party in the United States, especially considering the absence of a labor party. One cannot understand the politics of the Democratic Party without understanding the central role of organized labor. Indeed, since the 1930s New Deal era, organized labor has been the most powerful core constituency of the national Democratic Party by several measures, including campaign contributions, grassroots mobilization efforts of the party’s key voters, lobbying, and setting the party’s legislative agenda. The 1932 critical election sparked a political realignment that permanently incorporated the labor movement as a core constituency of the twentieth century Democratic Party, so much so that J. David Greenstone proclaimed organized labor as the “national electoral organization of the national Democratic Party.”

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2014

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